At the start of the book, Hatchet’s protagonist, thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson, is a privileged city boy who is accustomed to the comforts of home and shocked at the unexpected changes brought about by his parents’ divorce. Brian initially views such adversity as a negative force that ruins the things he values. However, after a tragic plane crash that leaves him stranded alone in the Canadian wilderness, Brian finds himself facing much greater adversity than before. Through this extreme challenge, he eventually comes to understand that when combined with perspective and courage, adversity can be a source of positive change rather than pure destruction. Through his depiction of Brian’s personal evolution, Paulsen argues that while adversity can be a powerful catalyst for growth, it is not on its own enough to cause profound change in a person. In order to grow through adversity, an individual must meet challenges with patience, thoughtfulness, and hope.
Brian’s despair at the book’s start demonstrates his initial inability to gain perspective on his difficulties. To Brian, his parents’ divorce is all-consuming, and at this early stage, he is unable to imagine it as anything other than a force of destruction and ruin. Even as he is immersed in the new experience of flying in a plane above beautiful scenery, Brian can’t stop contemplating his parents’ divorce. Paulsen describes Brian’s interpretation of the word “divorce” as “a tearing, ugly word […] the breaking and shattering of all the solid things.” After the crash, Brian’s first reaction is to focus on what he lacks, echoing his despair and pessimism over his parents’ divorce. Considering what he’ll need to survive, Brian perceives himself to have no assets at all, thinking: “It kept coming back to that. He had nothing.” This simplistic view of events underscores Brian’s initial immaturity and inability to find anything positive in his challenging situation. Even after gaining some early mastery of his surroundings and attempting to find ways to survive, Brian continues to feel sorry for himself and focus on the destructive results of his situation. He sees his reflection in the water and, reacting to all the ways that he has been harmed, cries “long tears, wasted tears, self-pity tears.” Although Brian’s feelings are understandable given the circumstances, Paulsen’s word choice and description of these tears as “wasted” highlights his argument that for Brian to grow from his painful experiences, he will have to move past self-pity and find a more productive way to interpret the adversity he faces.
As Brian’s ordeal continues, his perspective slowly shifts from one of victimhood to one of empowerment and agency. After admitting to himself that his self-pity is holding him back, Brian gradually teaches himself glean lessons from the challenges he faces. In this way, he transforms his experience into one that brings him both a greater chance of survival and greater personal satisfaction. As his adversity increases, so too do the rewards he finds by looking for the benefits within his new challenges. After being attacked by a porcupine, Brian thinks repeatedly that he “can’t do this” and succumbs to a final bout of self-pity. However, this time he comes out of his despair with the new understanding that “feeling sorry for [himself] didn’t work.” Though he remains tempted by self-pity after this point, Brian’s acceptance of its futility is a crucial turning point in his ability to survive. Immediately after the episode with the porcupine, Brian’s newfound commitment to searching for wisdom in his challenges allows him to discover how to make fire with the hatchet. By rewarding Brian with the crucial tool of fire so soon after his rejection of self-pity, Paulsen promotes the idea that a positive mindset is a necessary component of growing through adversity.
Brian’s ability to maintain this new mindset is tested by greater and greater setbacks during the rest of the novel. When the rescue plane flies away without seeing his smoke signal, Brian is so overcome with despair that he contemplates suicide, but rather than giving in to misery as he has in the past, Brian emerges knowing that “the disappointment cut him down and made him new.” Abandoning hope of a speedy rescue, Brian instead finds a fresh resolve that he calls “tough hope,” which rests not on an external savior but on his ability to take care of himself. Brian’s survival skills increase dramatically as a result of this “tough hope,” indicating that it is a superior, more useful mode of thought than playing the victim. The most dramatic example of Brian’s ability to find strength within disaster comes when the tornado destroys Brian’s camp. Instead of despairing over what he has lost, Brian notices that he can now access the sunken plane and, through grueling work, he finds within it the resources he needs to finally get home. Brian’s rescue comes only when he has genuinely learned to survive without it, again underscoring Paulsen’s argument that determination in the face of adversity is essential for true growth.
By the novel’s conclusion, Brian’s priorities and perspective have undergone a profound shift. His newfound familiarity with life’s most essential needs—food, shelter, survival—helps him reinterpret adversity as a force for building strength rather than breaking it. Brian’s changed priorities are a crucial piece of his success in escaping the wilderness. Excited by the prospect of searching the plane after the tornado, Brian remembers to slow down and eat before beginning, thinking: “First food, then thought, then action.” Paulsen indicates that approaching his difficulties with thoughtfulness and careful observation has made Brian more able to confront change with wisdom. When Brian at last reaches his family after his ordeal, the thought of his mother’s affair no longer seems to hold any power over him. Although “The Secret” haunted him at the beginning of the book, Brian has grown enough to recognize its relative unimportance, and he does not bring it up with his father. What once seemed an insurmountable force of destruction is now just another part of Brian’s life, a change that again underscores the importance of the individual’s interpretation of adverse circumstances.
Adversity and Growth ThemeTracker
Adversity and Growth Quotes in Hatchet
“Help! Somebody help me! I’m in this plane and don't know… don’t know… don’t know…” And he started crying with the screams, crying and slamming his hands against the wheel of the plane, causing it to jerk down, then back up. But again, he heard nothing but the sound of his own sobs in the microphone, his own screams mocking him, coming back into his ears.
Luck, he thought. I have luck, I had good luck there. But he knew that was wrong. If he had had good luck his parents wouldn’t have divorced because of the Secret and he wouldn’t have been flying with a pilot who had a heart attack and he wouldn’t be here where he had to have good luck to keep from being destroyed.
Nothing. It kept coming back to that. He had nothing. Well, almost nothing. As a matter of fact, he thought, I don’t know what I’ve got or haven’t got. Maybe I should try and figure out just how I stand.
Ugly, he thought. Very, very ugly. And he was, at that moment, almost overcome with self-pity. He was dirty and starving and bitten and hurt and lonely and afraid and so completely miserable that it was like a being in a pit, a dark, deep pit with no way out. He sat on the bank and fought crying. Then let it come and cried for perhaps three, four minutes. Long tears, self-pity tears, wasted tears.
He did not know how long it took, but later he looked back on this time of crying in the corner of the dark cave and thought of it as when he learned the most important rule of survival, which was that feeling sorry for yourself didn’t work. It wasn’t just that it was wrong to do, or that it was considered incorrect. It was more than that—it didn’t work. When he sat alone in the darkness and cried and was done, all done with it, nothing had changed. His leg still hurt, it was still dark, he was still alone and the self-pity had accomplished nothing.
He could not play the game without hope; could not play the game without a dream. They had taken it all away from him now, they had turned away from him and there was nothing for him now. The plane gone, his family gone, all of it gone. They would not come. He was alone and there was nothing for him.
He had been looking for feathers, for the color of the bird, for a bird sitting there. He had to look for the outline instead, had to see the shape instead of the feathers or color, had to train his eyes to see the shape…
It was like turning on a television. Suddenly he could see things he never saw before. In just moments, it seemed, he saw three birds before they flew, saw them sitting and got close enough to one of them, moving slowly, got close enough to try a shot with his bow.
She had done more damage than he had originally thought, the insane cow—no sense to it at all. Just madness. When he got to the shelter he crawled inside and was grateful that the coals were still glowing and that he had thought to get wood first thing in the mornings to be ready for the day, grateful that he had thought to get enough wood for two or three days at a time, grateful that he had fish nearby if he needed to eat, grateful, finally, as he dozed off, that he was alive.
A flip of some giant coin and he was the loser. But there is a difference now, he thought—there really is a difference. I might be hit but I’m not done. When the light comes I’ll start to rebuild. I still have the hatchet and that’s all I had in the first place.
For all this time, all the living and fighting, the hatchet had been everything—he had always worn it. Without the hatchet he had nothing—no fire, no tools, no weapons—he was nothing. The hatchet was, had been him. And he had dropped it.
They were not nightmares, none of them was frightening, but he would awaken at times with them; just awaken and sit up and think of the lake, the forest, the fire at night, the night birds singing, the fish jumping—sit in the dark alone and think of them and it was not bad and would never be bad for him.